Big Business: The Business Side of Pro Athlete Autographs

Autographs have made a transition. Until the 1970s, autographs were anything but big business. A kid would chase down Frank Robinson near the team bus and – bam – he got his autograph.

Now-a-days, this type of interaction has become much less common. Professional athletes have become much less accessible. And these pieces of memorabilia have become much more valuable. How valuable? Well, the NFL sells a helmet with the signatures of 43 past Super Bowl MVPs for $14,999. With legends like Joe Namath, John Elway, Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Terry Bradshaw signing along with modern stars like Von Miller and the Manning brothers, it must have been quite the event getting all these guys under the same roof.

Super Bowl XL MVP Autographed helmet

The full list of autographs includes Bart Starr, Joe Namath, Len Dawson, Chuck Howley, Roger Staubach, Jake Scott, Larry Csonka, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris, Jim Plunkett, Randy White, John Riggins, Marcus Allen, Fred Biletnikoff, Doug Williams, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Steve Young, Richard Dent, Ottis Anderson, Phil Simms, Mark Rypien, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Larry Brown, John Elway, Terrell Davis, Ray Lewis, Desmond Howard, Tom Brady, Dexter Jackson, Hines Ward, Deion Branch, Kurt Warner, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Santonio Holmes, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, Malcolm Smith, and Von Miller.

It goes without saying that the traditional autograph can be a pain to acquire if a fan takes a piece of equipment to a game of trade show hoping to gain the sparse attention of a player. You can Enter Seattle, Washington-based Egraphs, a six-month old sports and entertainment technology venture with $2 million in funding, that connects fans to athletes who create unique handwritten notes and audio messages dubbed as the next-generation of autographs.

The next step for the young start-up is an announcement that it has struck a deal with the National Basketball Association (NBA), which immediately doubles Egraphs’ footprint in the world of major sports with the NBA joining the company’s existing relationship with Major League Baseball (MLB).  As of today’s announcement, Egraphs has already come to terms with over 70 NBA players who are now live on its website, including the Atlanta Hawks’ Josh Smith, Houston Rockets’ legend Hakeem Olajuwon and the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry.

“We worked on securing those NBA players for the better half of 3 months in an effort to determine the right athletes to team up with,” said Gabe Kapler, a former MLB outfielder and Egraphs’ director of business development.  “The reason we worked with baseball first was frankly because they were the lowest hanging fruit.  There are many individuals at Egraphs, including myself, with relationships at MLB.  Baseball also has a strong tradition of fans wanting to connect with players in an intimate way.  But the cool thing about the NBA is that the players tend to be more active with social media and have bigger brands online.”

Egraphs has implemented a very simple process for fans to receive the shareable written and audio messages developed through the company’s platform.  First, a fan sends an individualized message to a player on Egraph’s roster, the player then uses an iPad app to respond and finally, the finished product is a personalized and an authenticated message is tailor-made and delivered to each recipient.

The Egraphs system is also easy for athletes to understand and enjoy, which is demonstrated by early reactions by NBA players.  “Egraphs is an awesome way for me to connect with fans around the country,” said Steve Novak of the New York Knicks.  “My favorite part is being able to record a fun voice message that is unique and personable.”  Matt Barnes of the Los Angeles Clippers added, “I can really put my personal stamp on an Egraph in a way that I can’t with traditional autographs or fan mail.”

Athletes can create Egraphs from the comfort of their own homes and at their convenience.  That was a big plus for Stephen Curry, who told, “sometimes the schedule of the NBA, with games and practice,s overwhelm you a bit. So to have Egraphs, where fans can be assured that I’ll be able to spend the proper time on my messages to them, should mean a lot.”

And while traditional autographed items can only be displayed to show off to one’s physical network, Egraphs may be shared with the entire community taking part in social media.  For instance, after the Oakland Athletics finished its most recent season, right fielder Josh Reddick tweeted out an Egraph thanking A’s fans for being such great supporters of the team, which was then retweeted over 300 times, received 300 favorites and was viewed by thousands of people.

The demand by consumers has matched the demand of athletes to jump on board.  Egraphs started with 8 baseball players creating unique handwritten notes and audio messages.  The company has now signed up over 250 MLB players.

Egraphs is currently a licensee of Major League Baseball, Major League Baseball Advanced Media and now the NBA, and the company plans to move into other areas of sports and entertainment.  “We launched our baseball product in June; next up for us is to work with celebrities across all verticals,” added Kapler.  “Our intention is to provide every celebrity who wants to connect to his or her community the ability to do so.”

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